How a movie exposé of “abuse of power” defends those in power and their institutions
The recent Michael Mann movie Public Enemies (2009) is the latest in which FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is portrayed (by actor Billy Crudup) as a fleshy, bull-necked empire-builder.
Hoover operated on two levels simultaneously at all times: expanding the range and reach of the FBI, and using an always-pliant and cooperative mass media to create an image of the FBI as professional, scientific, above politics, and staffed by “men of the best type.” The rise of the Black rights and antiwar movements bred sufficient revulsion and skepticism about U.S. government action to start tearing up this fantastic cop utopia. For forty years Washington and its media flacks have been trying to restore some of that old unquestioning (and unreasoning) faith. But all the king’s horses and all the king’s men have been signally unsuccessful in that task.
Our “split-the-difference” liberal cop lovers play their usual pernicious role around questions of FBI spying and secret political police activities. They decry “abuses of power” by the most reactionary individuals (from Hoover to Ashcroft and Chertoff) while defending the sanctity of the cop institutions themselves. Today we see the latest examples of this abysmal liberal tradition of giving left cover to the bloody handiwork of U.S. capital: President Obama explaining the need to maintain secret prisons and secret torture as part of his presidential toy chest.1 While not yet the absolute zero of lesser-evilism, such tactics do threaten to again overwhelm political rationalizations established decades ago by Cold War liberals (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, McCarthy, Carter) who upbraided reactionaries while at the same time herding finks and scabs in an attempt to throttle independent labor, civil rights, and antiwar struggles.
Movie exposés of “abuses of power” (liberal code words for Cointelpro Gestapo actions that were and are a normal part of U.S. capitalist rule) pursue such liberal courses. Pity for monsters is displayed in both documentaries like The Fog of War (2003) and dramas like Frost/Nixon (2008).
Larry Cohen’s 1977 movie The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover was one of the earliest exposés, though not the liberal monsterfest one would assume. It amalgamates every rumor and accusation brought against Hoover both professionally and politically, and pulls him out freshly vindicated and victorious at the other end. Even the cheapest products of big business media confer the aura of legitimacy.
Like most movies produced or released by American International Pictures (AIP) during its long history, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover apes the style, structure, and mise-en-scene of earlier and more successful moves. Here the models are All the President’s Men (1976) and Citizen Kane (1940). From All the President’s Men we get the realist corridors of power and the personalities implicated in political crimes; from Kane we get the multiple-viewpoint excavation of the life of a powerful and mysterious man.
J. Edgar Hoover is played by Broderick Crawford. This is an inspired bit of casting. In 1977 Crawford had thirty years of cinema and TV history behind him; few actors so consistently played either cops or crooks. Indeed, today Crawford is remembered (if at all) for three roles: as the Huey Long character Willie Stark in All the King’s Men (1949), scrap metal king Harry Brock in Born Yesterday (1950), and Chief Dan Matthews in TV’s Highway Patrol (1955-1959). As Hoover, Crawford perfectly conveys the Suetonius-scale temptations of unchecked power.
Cohen’s movie spends a lot of screen time on rumor and innuendo about Hoover’s private life. This is spelled out in particularly unsophisticated scenes of vulgar Freudianism. They convey the thesis that Hoover never overcame emotional subservience to an arrogant and dismissive mother, and that he never had a typical heterosexual relationship. Cohen enjoys these miseries endured by the young Hoover (James Wainwright), but dances carefully around questions of alleged homosexuality. Rumors about it are portrayed as rumors spread by professional and political opponents, and are never directly depicted. Happily, moviegoers are forever spared uncongenial depictions of Hoover and his FBI colleague and longtime companion Clyde Tolson (Dan Dailey) cavorting romantically. Oliver Stone showed no such consideration in Nixon (1995), in which Hoover (Bob Hoskins) is shown smooching with a cabana boy.
The Hoover Cohen gives us is a peeper and voyeur. He relishes recordings of subversives engaged in the theory and practice of free love. Indeed, one scene gives us Hoover swooning and nearly fainting from the excitement.
But while Cohen rounds up personal scandals, it is his depiction of the professional Hoover that contains the most surprises. His Hoover is no rogue or loose cannon or unscrupulous “godfather.” Rather the opposite: this Hoover rules with judgment and probity in his “crime fighting” and domestic contra operations. He is the Pope of cops. As a centrist organizer of bureaucratic rule, he opposes the episodic and subjectively motivated spying and dirty tricks perpetrated by presidents. He opposes Franklin Roosevelt’s internment of West Coast citizens of Japanese descent; the film portrays this obscenity as the reactionary land grab it was, with FDR and Earl Warren gloating over the spoils. In a later scene, he chastises Senator Joseph McCarthy as an unprincipled opportunist for his irresponsible red-baiting. Hoover fears these tactics will eventually discredit a witch hunt originally organized by Roosevelt and continued by Truman as they prepared their wars of imperial plunder and sought to eradicate any antiwar sentiment in the labor movement.2
Confronted by Nixon’s demands for increased domestic spying, Hoover stonewalls. The film suggests this leads Nixon to set up his own illegal black-bag outfit, the “plumbers.” At the end of the movie, it is suggested Tolson’s release of Hoover’s “private files” to the press led to Nixon’s resignation.
The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover also focuses on the Justice Department turf war between Hoover and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Actor Michael Parks plays RFK as a hunched, arrogantly smiling juvenile who can ultimately do nothing against Hoover. Historically, it would be hard to imagine two government officials with more in common politically. They both cut their teeth trying to wreck the U.S. labor movement.3 Hoover zeroed-in on destroying its communist vanguard, while Kennedy succeeded in branding it a criminal mob enterprise permanently corrupted and ready for government receivership. (The witch hunt against communist militants, combined with Kennedy “anti-mob” crusade, saddled our unions with the leadership of finks like Teamster President Jackie Presser.)
Another old chestnut dismissed by Cohen’s film is the supposed contest for power by Melvin Purvis (Michael Sacks). Purvis was a lawyer and FBI agent whom Hoover assigned to end the fame of bank robbers like Dillinger and Karpis. The movie shows us a Purvis who thinks, after Dillinger’s street execution, he will be more famous than Hoover. But Purvis quickly degenerates into a paranoid also-ran who imagines Hoover is listening to his phone calls. Suicide follows anon.
This Hoover knows that to defend Wall Street rule, his FBI must attack communists, civil rights leaders, and the Black Panthers. He dismisses as superfluous the idea that the FBI has a role in a war on organized crime. He also knows that presidents come and go, and want to use his Cointelpro arsenal for their own purposes, not the general necessities of defending the bourgeois state. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover gives us Hoover the Top Cop, the Platonic Ideal of a cop running the Platonic Ideal of a cop organization in capitalist society.
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The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is certainly Larry Cohen’s most ambitious movie. It came at as the culmination of several years of hard-hitting productions. Black Caesar (1973) was a Raoul Walsh gangster movie for the anti-colonial age. It’s Alive (1974) gave a Roe v. Wade twist to Rosemary’s Baby and not so subtly defended Father Right. God Told Me To (1976) is Cohen’s upside-down, inside-out alien invaders story, and one of his finest achievements.4
Throughout his career, Cohen has created and written more projects than he has directed. Politically there is nothing progressive in their content. At the same time, Cohen is deeply, sarcastically, and often hilariously skeptical of pretenses and motivations underlying ruling-class institutions. A true petty-bourgeois radical, he mocks the lurid ethos of corporations in The Stuff (1985), law enforcement in Maniac Cop (1988), and the Pentagon in Uncle Sam (1997).5
In this Cohen is reminiscent of another radical movie maker, Samuel Fuller. Neither has any interest in labor or social struggles as historically progressive subjects. But at the same time, both are repulsed by bourgeois values and by the kind of men who run a country like the United States. Cohen employs Fuller the movie director as an actor in A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987), portraying an avenging Nazi hunter driving a stake through the heart of a vampiric Reagan-Bush small town. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is in keeping with this radically contrarian but completely unprogressive defense of bourgeois institutions.
In the end, presidents and their political advisors are unworthy of the power inherent in the institutions they run. Hoover is worthy. He has created an institution and dedicated his life to maintaining the purity of its bloody anti-worker project. He transcends the label “top cop.” His body might be buried, but Cohen nicely conveys his final and pharaonic triumph: the giant FBI headquarters in Washington D.C. is given Hoover’s name.
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Larry Cohen regales an audience with the facts and politics about the making of The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover on youtube.
- Bill Van Auken, “Death Squads and US Democracy,” World Socialist Web Site, 14 July 2009. [↩]
- Farrell Dobbs, “FBI and the Unions” (June 1940), Marxists.org. [↩]
- Arne Swabeck, “The Split in the AFL-CIO” (August 1958), Marxists.org. [↩]
- See review of God Told Me To in 1000 Misspent Hours. [↩]
- See the Larry Cohen entry on the Internet Movie Data Base. [↩]